Let’s start with one of the most heated public and political issues in the U.S. for at least four decades since Roe v. Wade: the abortion debate.
How does that debate resonate differently if framed as Pro-Life v. Pro-Abortion when compared to Anti-Abortion v. Pro-Choice? Or how does that debate resonate differently if framed as the rights of the unborn child versus women’s rights?
But the abortion debate reveals more than just the power of naming the enemy in that contest of ideologies because the abortion debate has often devolved into mostly a struggle for power, one that leaves in its wake both the claimed concern for the unborn child and women. In other words, too often the abortion debate is about scoring public points or making political hay—and not about the welfare of marginalized human beings, especially in the context of race and racism (without the intervention of the courts, affluent white women had access to reproductive rights that poor black women were denied).
And then if we dig deeper, the abortion debate in its most extreme and insensitive forms also becomes a battle between privileged agents, ones who ignore the race and class issues that significantly overlap the more narrow debate about access to abortion or reproductive rights.
For several years now, I have watched and participated in an increasingly hostile education reform debate that has many of the same characteristics I have identified above.
Early in my public (and evolving) role writing about that reform (in the more recent of thirty-plus years advocating for reform as part of my daily practice as a classroom teacher at both the high school and higher education levels), I found the need to define the debate as a struggle between No Excuses Reformers (NER)—who focus on in-school only reform as accountability—and Social Context Reformers (SCR)—who call for both social and educational reform as equity—aligning myself with the latter.
Also early in that public effort, I confronted directly and even interacted with some of the prominent agents of NER, something I gradually stopped doing. However, those contentious exchanges inevitably spurred my being framed as anti-reform.
Coming from advocates of NER, that label offended me greatly—again because I entered education and then committed my work as a teacher for decades to very unpopular reforms such as expanding the canon to include black and female writers, ending tracking, and erasing the masked racial bigotry of my small home town that was reflected in the high school’s disciplinary and curricular practices.
— chris thinnes (@ChrisThinnes) August 20, 2015
Here I had to step back from my entrenched knee-jerk response to the “anti-reform” label because for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes, the use of “anti-reform” is in the context of many people I have framed as SCR advocates becoming so committed to fighting NER, Perry has noted “that overwhelmingly white movements pursuing change for black and brown communities are inherently paternalistic.” In other words, the two dominant voices debating education reform are often indistinguishable in their missionary zeal and their tendency to ignore the very communities, families, and children historically and currently mis-served by both reform agendas and traditional public schooling.
Exploring these [nuanced] questions [about TFA] this last year have helped start to move me from my own simplistic “us and them” camp mentality; to recognize the richness of the social justice commitments that many individuals are bringing to many sectors and orgs; to wonder what kind of systemic transformation ‘we’ actually envision; and to question who it is, exactly, that ‘we’ are really fighting for.
For me, then, I must stress that when NER advocates toss out the label “anti-reform,” I am skeptical, even cynical, about the intention, but “anti-reform” works for Perry, Dye, and Thinnes in a much different and significant way: This is a warning flag, a vital warning flag, that all along the so-called education reform spectrum, as Thinnes notes, the “us v. them” mentality allows “reform” to be yet another insensitive and blunt baseball bat swung in self-righteousness, battering indiscriminately.
Thirty-plus years into intensive state and federal education reform have not resulted in the sorts of educational or social outcomes politicians have promised and the public has expected. In fact, the reforms themselves have increasingly become secondary to the war and those poised to benefit from that reform debate.
Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—among others—require us to step back from that debate and recognize that white privilege/white denial remain the poisons infecting the so-called “both sides,” whether we label those sides NER v. SCR or reformers v. anti-reformers.
Social and educational justice advocacy that forefronts race and racism must unite everyone dedicated to education reform, and in doing so, this must stop being a war of privilege, one that is deaf and blind to the voices and interests of black, brown, and poor people.
In the August 1965 Ebony, James Baldwin began “The White Man’s Guilt”: “I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what what white Americans talk about with one another,” adding:
I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibitory. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see.
It is 50 years later, and Baldwin’s incisive confrontation of white-as-blind, white-as-deaf to the black condition, of the “most disagreeable mirror” is now being replicated in an education war too often being fought as if the greatest historical and current failure of education doesn’t involve black, brown, and poor people.
Baldwin’s refrain—”White man, hear me!”—in the context of the education reform movement being too white to matter, in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, demands an end to white privilege and white denial that maintain the burden of the accusatory gaze on black, brown, and poor communities, families, and students.
“[P]eople who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it),” Baldwin argued, “are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”
This is the education reform movement challenged by Perry, Dye, and Thinnes—a battle between mostly white advocates, impaled on their own missionary zeal and demanding that other people do what they themselves are incapable of doing.
Before us we have an enemy we seem to refuse to name, the white privilege at the root of the historical failure of universal public education and the remaining white privilege derailing both sides of the reform debate.
From New Orleans to #BlackLivesMatter, the echo of Baldwin’s “White man, hear me!” remains drowned out beneath the white noise of reform debate.
The responsibility lies with that privilege to see ourselves, to change ourselves, and thus to change the world we have created and maintained.